Saturday, July 05, 2008

Judicial Retention - An Important Vote

In today's Sentinel, Amy Hamilton provides an overview of the upcoming judicial retention elections in the 21st Judicial District, which includes Mesa County, as well as the process by which judges are recommended for retention by the voters.

There are up to five judges that may face a retention election this November. Ms. Hamilton's article included a description of the process of recommending a judge for retention, which involves a 10-member Judicial Performance Commission made up of attorneys and private citizens.

21st Judicial District Chief Judge David Bottger is quoted in the story as saying, “I’m surprised at how many citizens don’t know they can fire me.”

We voters do have quite the job this November, even without this level of judicial retention. Judge Bottger's candor, at least for Ms. Hamilton's story, is laudable.

Irrespective of any recommendation by a Judicial Performance Commission, We the People can also decide whether or not a judge's performance, as reflected in part by his/her decisions, reflect what the community perceives as its' own standards for the incarceration of accused criminals, and the appropriate sentencing of those convicted of serious crimes.

Our local media outlets can assist citizens in this regard in several ways. Here are some examples that I hope are helpful:

1. Reviewing the sentencing of those convicted of crimes by the local judges up for retention, as well as their practices in setting bail for those accused.

2. Investigate and report on the selection process for the Judicial Performance Commission. A glance at the list of members that accompanied the Sentinel story immediately brings up a question. Is Judicial Performance Commission member Trudee Andersen-Gurley in any way related to 21st District Court Judge Dick Gurley? Judge Gurley, while not up for a retention vote this year, nonetheless works closely with the judges who are.

3. Provide a better understanding of the inner workings of our criminal justice system to those citizens who are fortunate enough not to be involved with it, either as a suspect or a victim. For example, What are the factors that play into whether or not to prosecute someone, or to grant him bail until his trial?

4. Highlight those instances in this Judicial District and others where controversial decisions by judges may be viewed as a potential stumbling block to their retention, or the retention of the presiding judges that oversee their activities.

An example of this would be 11th Judicial District Magistrate Larry Allen. Judge Allen, over the objections of a Park County prosecutor, allowed Patrick Strawmatt to bail out in February of 2007, after Strawmatt attempted to elude Park County law enforcement and, according to the Rocky Mountain News, "took on three uniformed officers, rammed the sheriff's car and punched the sheriff."

One month later, an intoxicated Strawmatt attempted to flee State Patrol troopers on I-70 near Palisade, and while doing so rammed a vehicle occupied by Mesa State students Jacob Brock and Jennifer Kois, killing them both. This tragedy, and the subsequent outcry, became the Sentinel's choice for its' Top Story of 2007.

According to the Colorado Judicial Branch website, Magistrate Allen "serves at the pleasure of" Chief Judge Charles M. Barton. It might make an interesting follow-up story as to how the handling of Patrick Strawmatt's case in Park County may affect the retention of Chief Judge Barton, and/or the tenure of Magistrate Allen.

Our citizens rely upon all components of the criminal justice system, from Police to Prosecutors to Judges to Jailers to Probation and Parole, to protect us from criminal activity and successfully prosecute those that are guilty of crossing the line. Undoubtedly, there are parts of the system that do not do this as often as we would like.

We rely on judges to make decisions on bail and sentencing that are as fair as possible, but also help to maintain the public safety.

As the people are the ones making the decision to retain these judges, they should have as many sources of information available as possible to assist them. This includes the proactive involvement of a free and independent media to report on the issues surrounding judicial retention, with the same fervor as they do the high-profile trials that these judges may preside over.

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